Biography (COB): Huang Gai (Gongfu)

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Huang Gai (Gongfu)Huang Gai (Gongfu)
黄蓋 (公覆)

Comprehensive Officer Biography
Translated & Authored by

Place of Birth: Quan Ling County, Ling Ling Precinct (Presently Ling Ling in Hunan Province)
Life Span: AD 145 - ???
Titles: Auxiliary Corps Commander, Acting Colonel of the Firm Attack, Chief Commandant of Danyang, General of the Gentlemen of the Household, Governor of Wu Ling

Huang Gai had a tough childhood, growing up in the poor southern county Quanling. Though he was in poverty, Huang Gai refused to be a mediocrity. During his breaks from cutting firewood, Huang Gai learnt to read and studied books of tactics. (1)

Huang Gai started his career, running errands for the district office in Quanling. When Sun Jian took up the post of Grand Administrator of Chang Sha Commandery, Huang Gai went to serve him. When Dong Zhuo took over Luo Yang, Sun Jian was sent north to do battle and Huang Gai followed him as well (2). He was appointed Auxiliary Corps Commanding Officer and fought against Dong Zhuo in Liang Province under Sun Jian.

After the death of Sun Jian, Huang Gai and his friends, loyal to the Sun clan, followed their young Master Sun Ce back to their headquarters in Lu Jiang Commandery. Since Sun Jian was under the command of Yuan Shu, the old troops were transferred back to Yuan Shu’s camp. Huang Gai and his old compatriots did not follow Yuan Shu like their late Master, but instead they stayed close to Sun Ce. Through hard work and amazing feats of leadership, Sun Ce was able to break away from Yuan Shu, and established himself south of the Yangzi. Sun Ce organised his family and their troops, and conquered many counties in the Jiang Dong area. Huang Gai was especially effective in the battles against Hill People and Non–Chinese natives, and he was recognized for his amicable treatment of commoners.

When Sun Ce established his base in the lower region of the Yangzi basin, a war against Huang Zu began (3). Sun Ce and Zhou Yu lead seperate troops against Liu Xun and Huang Zu, and successfully struck the first blow in the long campaign against Liu Biao’s command in Danyang. In his memorial to the court, Sun Ce appointed Huang Gai as the Acting Colonel of the Firm Attack.

After the death of Sun Ce in AD 200, Huang Gai followed his younger brother Sun Quan, who took over command of the Sun Clan’s forces. Sun Quan resumed the war against Huang Zu and was succesful in destroying Liu Biao’s forces in Danyang. He appointed Colonel Huang as Chief Commandant of Danyang, and titled him General of the Gentlemen of the Household.

When Cao Cao turned his attention to the south and threatened Wu, Sun Quan allied with Liu Bei to put up a defense that would deter any influence from the North. Zhou Yu took 30,000 elite troops and lead the Wu navy up the Yangzi near present day Huarong, to do battle with Cao Cao’s fleet in Xiangyang. Huang Gai was appointed as Divisional Commander under Zhou Yu, while Cheng Pu, Lu Su and Sun Quan commanded the vanguard. In one of the earlier skirmishes between the two forces in the year AD 208, Huang Gai was sent out to do battle and to examine the enemy formation. Huang Gai reported back to Zhou Yu, and plans were made to burn Cao Cao’s mighty fleet. In Romance, the story of “打黃蓋”, “Beating Huang Gai”, adds a great sense of loyalty and great humilty to the character of Huang Gai. In this story, Huang Gai willingly allowed himself to be beaten in public by Zhou Yu for suggesting to surrender to Cao Cao. This trick fooled Cao Cao’s spies, who reported the incident to their Headquarters. Shortly after, Huang Gai sent a fake letter of defection to Cao Cao, and prepared special transport for the exchange. Huang Gai filled his boats with dry grass and poured fatty oil over them, then covered them with red sheets and ornaments. A time was arranged for the transfer, and Huang Gai led his ships through the canal to the basin where Cao Cao’s fleet was anchored. Before Cao Cao could pick up the boats, Huang Gai set them on fire and rammed them into Cao Cao’s barges. Zhou Yu iniated a new offense and drove Cao Cao and his fleet out of the southland, sending them back to Xiangyang, and ending the Northern threat (4).

Sun Quan had a high regard for Huang Gai, and he was sent to nine counties in Wu to settle uprisings and to help the non–Chinese people get settled. Wherever Huang Gai was stationed, the area was quickly pacified, and the Shanyue people adored and admired him (5).

Huang Gai took up a post as Magistrate of Wuling, and died of natural causes a few years after. Gongfu was a serious man and skilful in educating his soldiers and the common folk under his jurisdiction. History tells us, that after Huang Gai’s death, the subjects in the Wu kingdom offered sacrifices in worshipping Huang Gai’s portrait throughout the year.

(1) Though it is not specifically mentioned which books Huang Gai studied, we do know which books were common in those ages. The Art of War by Master Sun, the Six Strategems, the Zuo Chronicle, the Tales of the States and the Three Histories are examples of famous literature of that time. Unlike gentry children such as Sun Quan, Huang Gai did not have the benefit of schooling or private tutoring. In the times of the collapse of the later Han, schooling was something that was mostly available to male children of gentry families or nobles. When Sun Quan was young, his father already held a considerable rank as Grand Administrator of Changsha, but Huang Gai came from one of the poorest counties south of the Yangzi and obviously did not receive any convential schooling. <return>

(2) Officers such as Huang Gai, Cheng Pu, Han Dang, Zu Mao, Zhu Zhi and Sun Jing joined Sun Jian in his early days as a personal following. None of them held any official appointment before that. Sun Jian’s personal group of followers actively participated in battles as if they were common soldiers, and they had their share of personal injuries. (See for example, the biography of Cheng Pu) <return>

(3) Huang Zu was a subordinate of Liu Biao, and was in control of the western part of Danyang Commandery. It was his troop that ambushed and killed Huang Gai’s master Sun Jian, and he was therefore considered a mortal enemy of the Sun clan. After the death of Sun Ce, Sun Quan continued the war against Huang Zu along with Zhou Yu. <return>

(4) A copy of the letter that Huang Gai sent to Cao Cao was preserved in the history books, and it confirms that Huang Gai indeed used this ruse to beguile Cao Cao. The story of Huang Gai’s beating could be folklore or real history, but there is not enough proof to support the latter. <return>

(5) Taken from a letter in Huang Gai’s Biography in Sanguozhi. <return>

Copyright © 2002 – 2003 Jonathan Wu
A Kongming’s Archives Exclusive Production
Major Sources: Zhongguo Lishizhu – Professor T.Chen (1965 Peking)
annotations from Wu Jianxiang dachen nianbiao and Wu Li
Generals of the South – Rafe de Crespigny